College student stress: Social anxiety and alcohol use
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the second in a four-part series from the Barmanns on the topic of college student stress and its associated mental health consequences.
Many individuals report that becoming a college student had been their goal for as long as they can remember.
Along with their parents, they assumed the future would include attending an excellent university filled with 4 years of academic achievement.
After all, for the majority of these students, success was typically the norm during their high school days.
However, having had few disappointments during their pre-college years, it can lead to problems when needing to utilize a skill set for solving unique challenges that were rarely, if ever, experienced in the past.
In the absence of such skills, the sudden reality of not enjoying another “undefeated season” can feel overwhelming, if not catastrophic.
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SOCIAL COMPARISON AND SELF-DOUBT
Years ago, a college student’s emotional difficulties centered on developmental areas such as homesickness, relationship issues, family concerns, etc.
Today’s collegians are facing serious mental health problems — primarily anxiety and depression. Research indicates that anxiety, particularly Social Anxiety, is now the No. 1 diagnosis seen among college students seeking counseling services.
Students are hyper vigilant concerning the possibility they are being viewed by their peers and professors as socially awkward and/or intellectually inept.
Indeed, some students attending Ivy League and other elite academic institutions suddenly find themselves living within an environment in which a large number of students could easily boast an extensive resumé of academic honors, impressive summer internships abroad, etc.
Daily interactions with classmates and roommates begins to elicit the question, “was my acceptance into this college a clerical error?”
Thoughts of this nature quickly trigger feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt across a number of scholastic and social-interpersonal situations.
The mistake college students make when comparing themselves to extremely high-achievement-oriented, perfectionistic students is further intensified via the use of social media venues.
When academic and personal successes are presented publicly via Facebook, Instagram, etc., students have a tendency to express a picture-perfect life, void of anxiety, which causes students on the receiving end of this form of communication to engage in habitual patterns of social comparisons, negative self-evaluation, and the belief they are being judged by others as socially awkward and inept.
Avoidance strategies become the anxious student’s default mode of behaving, while also doing whatever it takes to appear infallible throughout several major life domains.
Drugs and alcohol have been a part of campus life for decades. However, rather than serving as a way to look cool or avoid studying, alcohol use among today’s college students is oftentimes used as a strategy for self-medicating their anxious arousal in social environments.
That is, alcohol serves as a means for regulating one’s negative emotional states.
In a 2014 report published by the University of Pennsylvania, 28 percent of college students get “blackout drunk” at least twice per month. These students report that the path to pleasure is to become unconscious through excessive alcohol use.
It’s not just a “reward” for working hard during a demanding week, but instead its primary function is to distance oneself from the anxiety experienced within a social context, particularly the environment of a college campus when feeling unable to compete with past accomplishments, as well as one’s classmates.
Basically, the thought process is, “if I drink before I attend the party I’ve been invited to, I’ll be better able to deal with the possibility of making mistakes when interacting with others.”
The problem is, as these students continue to use alcohol as an avoidance strategy for combating social embarrassment, it results in making them more unhappy, more anxious, and less confident concerning their ability to behave in a competent manner in social settings.
The excessive use of alcohol for dealing with Social Anxiety also results in additional problems such as engaging in casual sex, which can often spiral out of control.
According to Holly Rider-Milkovich, Director of Sexual Awareness & Prevention at the University of Michigan, “the number one date rape drug on a college campus is vodka.”
When interviewing students who were found guilty of this offense, their most common reason for drinking alcohol was to lessen feelings of anxiety while on a date — having sex when intoxicated was not the primary goal.
In addition, students who used alcohol to self-medicate their social anxiety for Friday night parties, awoke on Saturday mornings reporting feeling depressed and even more anxious.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Barry may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.
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